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Piddig, Ilocos Norte: A model for the “new normal” in agriculture

Jane Lynn Capacio, Jeremiah Joseph Revereza, Tara Alessandra Abrina, and Annette Balaoing-Pelkmans

What does the “new normal” look like for the agricultural sector? A town in Ilocos Norte might have a preview of what’s next for farming.


(The authors wish to thank Mayor Eduardo Guillen of Piddig, Ilocos Norte and Board of Investments (BOI) Governor Napoleon Concepcion for their comments.)

Pandemic unravels systemic problems in agriculture

Problems in agriculture in the Philippines, in regard to agricultural supply, demand, and distribution, were evident before COVID-19. However, these were amplified during the pandemic. Farmers reportedly throw their produce due to lack of buyers and transportation, while residents in locked down urban areas needed access to fruits and vegetables.5
These problems caused numerous other problems, including farmers being trapped into piles of debt, and Metro Manila residents suffering from high food prices.6 The coronavirus unraveled deep-seated problems that we have lived with for decades.

At the same time, this pandemic also showed models that we are truly resilient. Even before televised executive meetings discussed the “whole-of-nation” approach to addressing COVID-19 and other issues, there were local government units (LGUs) that developed convergence plans and programs, and “sold” these plans to national government agencies, private sector, and farmers groups.7
In this first installment of a two-part series, we will take you to Piddig, Ilocos Norte, for a tour of its local government’s agricultural development efforts.

In Piddig, we find a story of convergence resulting in agricultural development that benefits smallholder farmers. Their narrative is starkly different from other agricultural towns where smallholders are poor because of lack of access to a multitude of needs (e.g. financing, extension services, infrastructure, marketing assistance, security of land tenure, and effective health care, to name just a few).

Their story gives a good example of how a local government can effectively deliver agriculture services based on the spirit of the Local Government Code (RA 7160).

Piddig is a model that can inspire our “new normal.” Let us look closely at what the LGU is doing, pick key principles as take-away lessons, and adapt practices where relevant.

Let’s journey to Piddig

Piddig is a third-class municipality situated along the rolling hills between the Guisit and Dingris rivers. It has a total land area of 21,620 hectares, of which, 5,712 hectares are agricultural lands, while about 14,000 hectares are forest areas.

Piddig has 23 barangays and a population of 21,497 residents. It is home to around 4,600 farmers whose primary crops are rice, corn, root crops, vegetables, fruits, and legumes. Other sources of livelihood for the community are fishery, livestock, and forestry.

Convergence efforts of Mayor Eddie Guillen

Just a few years ago, Piddig, like other municipalities, had a less-than-stellar rice yield. Even before running for mayor, Eduardo “Eddie” Guillen had a vision for agricultural development, and ideas on how to roll it out. His parents, after all, are Piddig farmers.

His first project failed. He initiated something big, but the smallholders were not receptive. It was only after he piloted a smaller project with the farmers, and after positive word-of-mouth, that smallholders became interested.

Mayor Guillen learned that agricultural projects can be scaled up through the resources of national government agencies. But first, the municipality needed to plan and consult its constituents.

When they were sure about their development plan—that it was coherent and that it considered possible consequences—the mayor knocked on the doors of national government agencies to see what projects he can take home.

Knocking on doors was not easy. Their development plan had no “proof of concept” at that time. Political alliances—Piddig being in Ilocos Norte—almost disqualified them from being heard. But he persevered, always carrying their development plan with him.

Being a civil engineer by profession, Mayor Guillen knew they needed a flood control dam, and had ideas on where it should be set up and how it can also be used as an irrigation facility. His ideas led him to an audience with the former secretary of the Department of Public Works and Highways. The flood control facility was the first of many projects he was able to bring in his municipality.

As Mayor Guillen kept knocking, he was answered by the Department of Agriculture, which provided them with a rice processing center and farm machines and equipment. When he knocked at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, it used the National Greening Program to start coffee production in Piddig. Now smallholders are provided diversified income.

The municipal government of Piddig converged the national projects
The operationalization of the national convergence initiative (and now, with the whole-of-nation approach) is with local governments. Projects do not converge on their own. They need an orchestrator. Mayor Guillen worked to ensure that the projects he sought fit well.

The LGU organized smallholders into the Piddig Basi Multipurpose Cooperative (PBMC) to manage the rice processing center and the coffee processing facilities. The LGU knew that when farmers with small landholdings are unorganized, their cost of production and marketing will be high. The LGU also knew that without equipment like processing centers, and machineries like tractors and mechanical harvesters, farm activities would be inefficient. After all, many of their farmers are already part of the older population.

The following are the projects delivered by the LGU through the National Convergence Initiative Project:

Public goods, like infrastructure (e.g., farm-to-market roads, flood control dam),
Farm equipment (e.g., tractors); rice and coffee processing facilities,
Agriculture technology and agriculture extension services (including soil suitability tests to determine quality of soil),
Inputs (e.g., organic fertilizer),
Agriculture financing,
Crop insurance,
Marketing facilities, and
Land tenure services (e.g., land titling).
To be able to assist the PBMC, the local government also hired retired professionals to coach and assist the farmer leaders. This involves setting up systems to make processes effective, efficient, transparent, and accountable. This includes back office support, like setting up the accounting systems.

Zanjeras, PBMC, and the local government

The local government of Piddig partnered with 46 irrigation groups called zanjeras across its 23 barangays in rolling out the agriculture projects. Zanjeras are irrigation groups that possess water rights and receive payment for irrigation services.

Zanjeras comes from the Spanish word “zanja,” which means “ditch.” They can be found in Ilocos Norte and some of them date back to the Spanish period: Zanjera Diniega (1774), Zanjera Sales (1791), Zanjera de Ganagan (1792), and Zanjera Surgui (1811).8
Zanjeras, like those in Piddig, were initially created to address then poorly irrigated lands. Today, with centuries-old technology and social institutions, they are able to engineer and manage systems that draw water from the mighty Laoag River Basin.9
Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom describes the workings of zanjeras this way: each farmer who is willing to abide by the rules “receives a bundle of rights and duties in the form of atars”10 (farm areas). Zanjeras are independent from the government and they have their own rules with regard to the management and maintenance of the irrigation facility.

Mayor Guillen made sure that the PBMC works with the zanjeras for the following: (a) farm machinery services, (b) irrigation of farms, (c) agriculture financing with the zanjeras serving as guarantor of loans provided to smallholders, (d) organic fertilizer production, and (e) post-harvest, processing, and marketing support.

After numerous consultations, the LGU, PBMC, and the zanjeras agreed to plant only one variety of palay to enable more efficient processing, value-adding, and marketing of rice.

But the local government’s authority does not encroach on the water rights and other internal mechanisms of the zanjeras. Their partnership respects the independence of partners.

Mayor Guillen’s decision to partner with the zanjeras is a strategy that strikes at the very root of their Ilocano culture and history. In our next policy blog on Piddig, we will elaborate on our hypothesis: the mayor’s efforts were built on the endowment of strong social institutions, including the zanjeras.

A few caveats before cherry picking the Piddig model

Many would look at a model and cherry pick the best or the usable components. That is reasonable, especially with limited resources accruing to COVID-19. Before doing that, however, here are a few reminders.

The Piddig model shows a bundle of interventions aimed at long-term improvement. It is not geared for short-term “pick the low-hanging fruits,” and apply these to agriculture efforts. This model shows that problems in agriculture are systemic, and tweaking here and there without looking at whole systems might not lead to the desired results. In fact, it might result in perverse consequences.

The Piddig model also shows that since the problems are too wicked and the voids are too wide, no one actor or one sector can address all the requirements. Collaboration is key and the efforts of Mayor Guillen show the need to partner with national government agencies in a whole-of-nation or national convergence fashion to fill in as many of the requirements for public goods as possible. There is also a need to partner with (and not impose on) farmers’ organizations (like the zanjeras) to effectively deliver an agricultural program.

The model likewise shows that local government units can serve as lead firms in agriculture value chains. Someone needs to orchestrate upstream and downstream efforts and LGUs could do this role as envisioned by the Local Government Code. When they do, LGUs truly operationalize the meaning of “convergence” in their localities.

The model is also built on strong social institutions, like the zanjeras. This is their unique social endowment, and the mayor recognized and capitalized on this to implement agricultural convergence efforts. Local chief executives should scout for their initial capital and build from these.

Finally, what can be taken away from the Piddig model is the mindset of its local chief executive. Mayor Guillen was proactive in planning, consulting, and looking for means to implement their plan and achieve their vision. He did not give up even in spite of initial set back. He partnered with independent organizations to co-create programs.

New normal in agriculture

The Piddig model shows how agricultural development can be spurred by LGUs and gives concrete suggestions on how the budget for agriculture can be utilized.

While COVID-19 unraveled systemic problems and caused further challenges in agriculture, this juncture also provides an opportunity to reshape agriculture development in the country. Local government officials, national government agencies, and other stakeholders could do well by studying the Piddig model (and other models, like the case of Alabat in Quezon under Mayor Fernando Mesa), learning key principles, and adapting relevant practices.